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Explore African American Military History at the Library

Explore African American Military History at the Library

February 10, 2020

Mid-Continent Public Library recently sat down with Kathleen Brandt, genealogy instructor and owner of a3Genealogy, for a discussion about researching the military service of African Americans. Brandt will present the program Military Service by African Americans, which explores this subject, at several MCPL branches during February.

What should researchers keep in mind while researching African American military history?

Brandt: Through the different eras of America, the status and challenges have changed for African Americans in the military. This forces genealogy researchers to follow tailored strategies for ferreting out their African American veteran ancestor. To determine if your African American ancestor served in the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812, for example, we must consider that free-coloreds, black indentured servants, and slaves served in the war. Of course, the research to uncover your African American early war ancestor may include England and Canadian records also.

Research may include following researching seamen records, slaveholder records to include deeds and minutes, and other court records. Court records may uncover manumission records due to military service or detailed court cases that hold freedom records. African Americans who served as a substitute in these wars may have had a manumission clause in a court-recorded agreement with their slaveholder.

In addition, researchers must understand and follow the role of the Underground Railroad and Freedmen’s colonies. Often overlooked are the over 100 contraband Union camps for runaway slaves that existed in the South. Many of these slaves became veterans of the Civil War.

The records at the Provost Marshal Records at the regional National Archives are a treasure trove, as well as local newspaper clippings. Tracing your early war African American soldiers may be complicated by name changes, especially post-Civil War. Reconstructing your veteran’s family unit to ensure tracing common names can also be challenging. In genealogical research we always state “follow the money.” For African American research, this may begin with scouring the Freedmen Bureau’s records and include exhaustive research in county deeds and minutes.

The biggest myth is to assume your present family name was that of a slaveholder. The truth is that many of our African American soldiers served under a name not associated with a slaveholder, and after the war, maintained that name or assumed an alias. Of course, DNA results and strong genealogical research may assist in uncovering your military veteran.

America was not a safe place or a place of equality for African Americans, whereas other countries or communities welcomed their contributions. We find many of our Philippine War veterans, as well as WWI and WWII African American veterans, settled in foreign countries where they served. Uncovering these ancestors may require expanding our research to include overseas documents, passports, ship and passenger records, and American consulate records.

What are your top three tips for military history research?


  1. Don’t forget the National Archives Records in Washington, D.C., for the early wars—Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War, and Philippine War.
  2. Remember the modern war records (WWI to present day) are in both National Archives Records in College Park Maryland and in National Personnel Center in St. Louis. Yes, there was a fire in 1973, but many troop records and other types of records can be used to reconstruct your ancestor’s military service story and provide a working timeline.
  3. Don’t forget the value of the Veteran Administration records. This may take an additional step of sending out Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, but the time is well worth the effort. Plus, it is possible that the VA holds the original records or duplicates thought to be lost in the fire. A recent FOIA case produced over 400 pages of military records that had been presumed to have been lost in the 1973 fire.

What are some facts that people find surprising about African American military history?

Brandt: I like to say that the historical surprises about our ancestors help to paint their story! Some may find surprising that their African American ancestor was associated with serving in the Confederacy. Why would they do such a thing? With a bit more digging on state laws, war substitution laws, and court records, the researcher may find a definitive answer. As humans, we are rather attached to our surnames. Some families find it both surprising (and possibly disturbing) that their familiar surname was adopted as late as 1880; or an ancestor may have changed his name to an alias to serve in the Civil War.

Where can people can find more information on this topic?

Brandt: Attend my programs at the Library! In addition, this PBS article offers a good overview of African Americans in Combat. For those who are interested, I also frequently write articles on the a3Genealogy blog on these same types of topics. Lastly, a great place to start is with your state historical society and county genealogical societies. These repositories may address available records for your state and provide research tips.

Happy Researching!

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